Center Court: the spine of Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens

by Kevin Walsh

Brooklyn’s Court Street, named for the courthouse buildings downtown, runs from Montague Street and Cadman Plaza West (which was once Fulton Street and was shadowed by the rumblings of that street’s titular el until 1942) in a straight line to Gowanus Bay in Red Hook. It encompasses the hustle and bustle of downtown, the almost old-world neighborhoods of Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens, and the dimming industriousness of Red Hook. I walked the route in October 2008, shooting scenes that the Brooklyn guidebooks routinely miss.

In October 2008 I decided to walk Court Street from downtown all the way to the Gowanus Expressway — discounting new construction at Atlantic Avenue and the new megaplex theater and Barnes and Noble between Schermerhorn and State Streets, Court Street looks very much as it did from the 1930s or so, including 56 Court (left) and 64 Court (both between Joralemon and Livingston), which still features O’Keefe’s Bar & Grill, favored among lawyers and college students in the area.

At 36 stories tall, 66 Court, at Livingston, is second only in height in the downtown area to the Williamsburgh Bank Building (now known as 1 Hanson Place) and is the tallest building in Brooklyn you never hear about. Originally the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce Building, it was constructed in 1927 by architect A.F. Simberg. Very much in the 1920s ziggurated style, it features a faceted effect with diagonal planes facing the corner.

On the opposite corner at Court and Livingston is 76 Court, a 5-story brick building on the NW corner. It’s obviously one of the older buildings in the neighborhood but my research turned up dry about building details. Except… for a metal plaque on the Livingston Street side, installed during the Ed Koch administration, that mentions that in 1878 the first public secondary school in New York city was housed in the building (never mind that in 1878, Brooklyn was not a part of NYC). The Central Grammar School gave rise to Girls HS, Boys HS, Manual Training (John Jay) HS, and Eastern District HS. Despite its error, it’s serendipitous that this marker has survived over 30 years after its installation.

We’ve seen O’Keefe’s at 64 Court, where there has been a bar for over 90 years, and here’s Queen Italian Restaurant, which has been at 84 Court Street for over fifty; it was originally called Queen Marie, for the wife of King Umberto II, the last King of Italy.

Lost City’s Brooks of Sheffield, on Eater:

The Vitiello family, who own it, favor that sort of anodyne-cum-kitschy d├ęcor that many old-style Italian joints in NYC seem to mistake for class: a cream-and-beige color scheme, mirrored walls, plastic plants, a fake Roman column. Call it Banquet Hall Chic…The charm and appeal of Queen Restaurant emanates from two sources: the attentive, friendly staff and the more-than-capable kitchen.

I photographed the Bavarian-esque 93 Court, between Livingston and Schermerhorn, from the Macdonald’s across the street, the best way to see the south side of the street. The building features a deli on the ground floor and a bail-bonds place catering to the closed (for now) Brooklyn House of Detention on Atlantic Avenue. There’s an appealing tower with a lone casement window near the top.

According to the NY Times’ architecture historian Christopher Gray, it was constructed in 1927 as the offices of architects Samuel Malkind and Martyn Weinstein, who left their “coat of arms”: their surnames’ initials, a T-square and triangle in a shield.

105 Court (at Schermerhorn), the Chanin Building, was where your webmaster had one of his first paying jobs, as a photo developer and sweeping expert at a passport photo studio. The more famous Chanin Building is on East 42nd Street in the heart of Times Square.

South Brooklyn Savings Institution, 130 Court, NW corner of Atlantic Avenue. I photographed this 1922 McKenzie, Voorhees & Gmelin bank building before Trader Joe’s moved in in early 2009. John de Cesare’s equestrian relief of George Washington marks the spot in Cobble Hill where General George Washington observed some of the Battle of Brooklyn in what is now Prospect Park in August 1776. The hill, high in the colonial era, was gradually leveled over the ensuing decades.

“South Brooklyn” was once the generic term for the neighborhoods of Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, and Red Hook since they were located directly south of downtown Brooklyn. Directly in front of the bank on Atlantic Avenue is the only entrance to the abandoned Long Island Rail Road tunnel under Atlantic Avenue — a manhole cover.

(LEFT): one of the many expensive apartment buildings along Atlantic Avenue built during the early 2000s, this one at the SE corner of Court. RIGHT: subtly Deco building at Court Street and Pacific. Between Pacific and Dean on Court Street is the neighborhood Book Court, where Forgotten NY The Book was #1 on the paperback nonfiction best sellers list for a couple of weeks in late 2006-early 2007. (Ahead of Obama!)

ForgottenFan Michael Giaquinto: The “subtly Deco building at Court Street and Pacific” was once the headquarters of the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum (BHOA). I discovered this when, during the conversion of the ground floor of the building from what I recall was a career training institute to a CVS, the original building signage was temporarily uncovered. As an aside, I happened to see this a few months after my mother told me for the first time that she and her older brother had been placed in the care of the Asylum for several months due to her family’s severe economic hardship during the Depression.

LEFT: Pacific Street facing Court. RIGHT: chiseled street markers, Amity and Court

Take a look at the street map of the area surrounding Court Street. Note that Court Street serves as a barrier between western and eastern Cobble Hill, as the streets were not laid out to go through — they are a little off line. I doubt that this was done to prevent speeding, since they were laid out in the days of horses and carriages. Some streets, such as Pacific, Warren and Baltic get to keep their names when crossing Court, while some like Amity, Congress, and Kane are halted at Court and don’t continue east. Some of these streets continue east to 5th Avenue, such as Warren (which becomes Prospect Place), while Wyckoff is only allowed to get to 3rd Avenue before it becomes St. Marks Place. Pacific, Dean and Bergen get to run all the way east to Brownsville. The Court Street “barrier” breaks down at Degraw Street, where streets that begin at or near the waterfront continue east to Park Slope or Prospect Park and continue east of the park in Crown Heights..

The only place with a weirder crazy quilt pattern I’ve seen is Philadelphia, where an advanced degree in cartography is required to understand the street layout.

St. Paul’s Church, Court and Congress Street. Rather, St. Peter’s. More properly, St. Paul’s, St. Peter’s, Our Lady of Pilar Church. A very old church built in 1838 by Gamaliel King on land formerly owned by a furrier, Irish immigrant Cornelius Heeney, who served a a guardian to a boy named John McCluskey, who later became the USA’s first Cardinal. While Heeney donated some of his property to this church, he also donated some of his Manhattan Island holdings so that St. Patrick’s cathedral in midtown could be built, and also donated pews and gallery fittings to St. Peter’s on Barclay Street in lower Manhattan – thus, Heeney had a hand in some of NYC’s oldest extant Roman Catholic buildings. Heeney is interred in the churchyard here.

Angela’s Ashes author Frank McCourt was baptized here in 1930 before his family returned to Limerick, Ireland in 1934.

Foster Block, Court Street facing Wyckoff. In the late 19th Century buildings facing entire blocks were often given their own titles; not many of these survive in Brookly but I have seen some in Staten Island and more numerous ones in New England. Here, in the combined apartments and storefronts facing Wyckoff, the Foster name and the year of construction, 1898, are still plainly in view.

The storefronts on the Foster Block are remarkably unchanged from what they must have looked like decades ago. Rust is always an indicator of very old metalwork, as on this barrier fence.

Community Bookstore, Court and Warren Streets.

On the lucky occasions when my window-shopping meets the bookstore’s open door, I come in to browse, and try to find out what the story is about this place. The first impression, once inside, is that there’s nobody running it. No customers. Books are everywhere. It’s cramped, dim; half the fluorescents are burned out and the others twitch. The smell of stale smoke and mold hang in the air. There is a front area by the door, where some kind of checkout activity might happen, but all evidence of a register or a counter is buried under stacks of books. You are challenged at every turn to revise whatever notions you had going in of this place as your cluttered-yet-cozy neighborhood shop (the extra p and e at the end of the word). Every inch of shelf space is taken. No book has room to breathe. The bottom few rows along each aisle are blocked by shopping bags filled with selections that haven’t yet been shelved. The selections themselves are anachronous. Christopher Hacker in Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood

At 238 Court, a storefront that looks unchanged since the Truman administration, Sam’s Restaurant. Primarily a pizza place (one of Brooklyn’s best) these days, though “steaks” and “chops” are still prominent in the signage. According to Lost City’s Brooks of Sheffield, pizza master Mario Migliaccio, who made pizza here for almost 60 years, recently retired when his wife passed away; his son Louis will carry on. According to the comment board at Brooklyn Food Blog, though, snappy service is not always possible.

Though neighborhood theatres seem to be going the way of the phone booth and the typewriter, Cobble Hill Cinemas is still hanging on at Butler Street. The theatre was built in the mid-1920s and was originally called the Lido.

Help me here…this also looks like an old theatre building near Baltic, with the Greek comedy mask sculpture at the roof.

Court and Degraw. Carroll Gardens features many pastry shops, bakeries, butcher shops and pork stores reflecting a heavily Italian heritage.

Many butcher shops feature ‘animal cannibals’ — pigs holding rows of sausages or sporting chefs hats. I’ve always been bemused at this particular feature, like Charlie the Tuna begging to be caught — so he can be eaten in a sandwich.

Louis Valentino Jr. Ballfield, part of Carroll Park, Court Street between President and Carroll Streets, named for a hero fireman who spent his early years in Red Hook and Carroll Gardens. Valentino gave his life while searching for three injured firefighters in a Flatlands garage fire on February 5, 1996. Valentino is also remembered by the 10-year-old [in 2009] Louis Valentino Jr. Park and Pier at the end of Coffey Street in Red Hook.

No longer a place of worship, the former South Congregational Church at Court and President Streets dates to 1851. It was converted to apartment units in the late 1990s.

The Triunfel Grocery at 370 Court features a handpainted sign and inexplicably, 227 on the awning. A few doors down is a classic sign on Marietta Ladies’, Men’s and Children’s Wear at 392.

ForgottenFan Michael Giaquinto: The Triunfel Grocery at 370 Court inexplicably features a handpainted sign because the store had been located at 227 Court Street before it lost its lease. The store’s proprietors simply took their sign with them when they moved across Court Street to their current location.

(LEFT) 98 1st Place at Court Street, described as a “brownstone bracketed Italianate corner villa” by the AIA Guide to New York City. RIGHT: another hand-painted store sign at 3rd Place, Carroll Gardens Wines & Liquors.

Some say P. J. Hanley’s (Hanley’s Tavern) at 449 Court and 4th Place is the oldest bar in Brooklyn, with spirits served continuously here (under various ownership) since 1874. The bar was originally owned by Norwegian immigrants; it was known as Ryan’s during the Depression, with Al Capone brewing hooch in the basement; the titular P. J. Hanley purchased the bar in 1956 — the Hanley family sold it in 2005. Photos: New York Magazine

St. Mary Star of the Sea (Stella Maris) Church at Court and Luquer Streets. In Brooklyn By Name, Leonard Benardo and Jennifer Weiss say the church was established in 1855 with sailors and merchant mariners a large part of the parish’s early congregants, hence the name of the church. The aforementioned Capone married Mae Coughlin here in 1918.

The Mystery Worshipper weighs in…

To those of us of a certain age who were brought up in the Latin Roman Catholic tradition, St Mary’s is the typical old-style Catholic church we remember so well. Located at 467 Court Street, in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens neighborhood, St Mary’s is a large red brick building with granite facade. The somewhat overdecorated interior is cream with dark wooden pews. The high altar and communion table are marble. The rococo-style reredos features statues of the four evangelists. Prominent stained glass windows depict the five joyful mysteries and scenes from the life of Christ. I especially liked a window of Christ teaching in the temple, in which one of the elders was dressed in a ruby red robe of brilliant hue. An elaborate Victorian organ case graces the gallery, although the original pipe organ has been replaced with an electronic instrument and all but the first row of decorative diapason pipes have been removed.

500 Court, George’s Potpourri (since relocated to Henry Street); nearby, Henry’s Barber Shop and coming soon, Mardi Gras Luncheonette, and I wonder if it ever did come. All formidable hand-lettering. Why is “Henry’s” crossed out? Was Henry forced out by another barber? Was there a turf war?

I couldn’t resist showing the Carroll Gardens Dental Center at 544 Court, with some very mixed messages about what goes on inside. All dental offices are houses of pain to some degree, but the mural on the side of the building depicts things in an uptempo, cheerful light, with dancing teeth and Spongebob, while the front is all 1960s industrial, with no-nonsense typography and a caduceus to make things official.

If you liked Court Street, you’ll like his cousin Smith Street, one block to the east.